Alejandro Gehry paints a pantheon of punk rock women

By Christina Campodonico

Alejandro Gehry poses in his Venice studio for photographer Debbie Zeitman’s “Before They Go” project. Follow it on Instagram @beforetheygo

Defiantly figurative, unabashedly sexual and intently focused on the female form, painter Alejandro Gehry’s work is a far cry from the abstract aesthetic of his earliest artistic influences.

Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, Chuck Arnoldi and Larry Bell — pioneers of the Los Angeles postwar art scene and the California light, space and pop movements — kept company with his famous father, the world-renowned starchitect Frank Gehry, and their Venice studios weren’t far from the family home in Santa Monica.

“I sort of grew up hanging out with them and going to their openings and their studios. At three or four years old, I’d be able to point [their artwork] out in a museum,” recalls Gehry, who chose to locate his own art studio in Venice.

At 41, Gehry surrounds himself with the creative energy of fierce women — namely titans of punk rock, like Lorna Doom of The Germs, The Bags’ Alice Bag and X’s Exene Cervenka. Their bold music and powerful personas not only inspire Gehry, they envelop him. His outsized, 5’x7’ portraits of them cover his studio walls from floor to ceiling, a pantheon of female punk rock power.

Lorna is a boss, sporting a killer red jacket on one wall. Alice is nonchalant with a pouty lip in the back of the studio. Exene looks like a lioness under a mane of ombré curls. Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and the entire classic lineup of The Slits are there, too.

“I really do love them all,” says Gehry, who’s unable to pick a favorite, though Alice Bag resonates with him because of their shared Latinx heritage (Gehry’s mom is Panamanian). “I admire them all. I would love to have worked from them in real life.”

Over the past two years, Gehry has been working from photographs to create the series “Women of Punk.” Starting Monday, Sept. 11, select pieces go on display at Wabi Sabi as part of EAT ART, a local initiative to showcase Venice artists on the restaurant’s walls and build a one-night menu around each artist’s work.

For Gehry, these portraits are an opportunity to honor artists that collective memory tends to neglect.

“The thing about punk is … most people immediately think of the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. A lot of women are overlooked,” he says. “I wanted to do this series to make people aware of these women that were strong, furious, talented and didn’t put up with any bullshit.”

As a male artist depicting female bodies, Gehry is well aware of the pitfalls of treading in such territory, but strives to approach his work from a mindset of respect.

“It’s tough because you can be accused of trying to objectify women. I wanted to sort of … pay tribute, but without objectifying,” says Gehry. “While I was working on these paintings, I was definitely playing a lot of the female artists.”

Recreating vintage punk rock poster art for his backgrounds, Gehry’s portraits are certainly not pinups. They read like homages to the music and style that he grew up with in Santa Monica, seeing local skate-surf kids and teens in the ’70s and ’80s adopt the look of punk musicians like Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees.

The multicolored mohawks, buzz cuts and black lips of the punk movement were a source of inspiration and continue to inform the artist’s personal identity. Gehry’s hair is spiked and his arms are covered with tattoos — a skull and cross bones, a black heart, a little bomb about to go off.

Though Gehry’s style screams punk rock, the classics remain just as important to him. He counts Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt and early 20th-century figure painter Egon Schiele among his artistic “heroes,” and dad made sure he was schooled in art history from an early age.

“Before I could watch cartoons on Saturday, I had to sit with him and look at a different art book,” he recalls.

But Gehry also learned a healthy amount of disrespect for traditional artistic conventions from his dad.

Growing up in the famous (some might say infamous) Frank Gehry Residence on 22nd Street in Santa Monica — a quaint Dutch colonial customized with angular additions of corrugated metal and chain link, much to the chagrin of some neighbors — the younger Gehry learned that great art doesn’t need to be liked or accepted.

“The neighbors hated it,” he recalls. “People used to throw their used condoms and dog shit in our lawn … graffiti and stuff all the time. I remember my dad actually had a sculpture. It was a Larry Bell. It was three big pieces of glass that formed a part of a box, and then the fourth panel was left open so you could actually walk inside of it. Some kids shot our windows out and the bullet actually hit and damaged the piece.”

Aside from a few negative incidents like those, Gehry’s memories of growing up in the house are fond: “We’d be climbing the chain link and we’d be on the roof with squirt guns and running all over the place,” he says.

Gehry’s portraits The Bags’ Alice Bag

Moreover, Gehry credits the experience and his father with giving him the fortitude to deal with artistic criticism.

“He would always just say, ‘Hey, don’t pay attention to it. People are always going to have opinions.’ I think that’s part of why I was able to handle critiques,” says Gehry, who studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design and now teaches at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. “A lot of friends would get upset when people said negative things, and I’d kind of just roll with it.”

From those familiar with Gehry’s style, however, his work tends to garner only praise. That includes “Empires Make Up,” an earlier series of paintings that depict naked women in the World War I battle helmets of enemy nations posing suggestively or making out against backdrops of trench warfare.

“It was very provocative,” says gallerist William Turner, who represents Gehry at his Bergamot Station gallery. “I thought it was such an interesting idea because you see these elements of war become these cool fashions. Someone wears a camo jacket or bomber jacket, or a cool military jacket with epaulettes. … It doesn’t matter what side you’re wearing, it becomes a fashion statement.

“I loved that Alejandro put that back in context. You start to see much more interesting, thought-provoking statements and questions.”

“I think he’s extremely talented. He has his own style,” adds Venice artist Laddie John Dill. He juried an early ’90s art scholarship competition at Santa Monica High School that Gehry won, and has kept an eye on Gehry ever since. “I’ve watched him turn into this extremely elegant, masculine guy. … I think he would fly like hell in New York.”

Turner praises Gehry for blending innate talent with a tireless work ethic.

“He has all those qualities in spades, and I’m excited to see what he’s producing next.”

 

EAT ART hosts a reception for Alejandro Gehry from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 11, at Wabi Sabi, 1635 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. A ticketed tour featuring the art studios of Gehry, Monica Perez, Gary Palmer and Barbara Lavery ($125) precedes the reception. Call (310) 314-2229 for dinner reservations and visit eatartvenice.com for tour tickets.

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